The 30 FIA World Endurance Championship entries at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring may represent less than half the total field, but will stand out more than normal as the influx of European teams and manufacturers descends on the track for its first race of the new championship. We'll split the field breakdown, simply, into prototypes (LMP1 and LMP2) and GTE (Pro and Am).
PROTOTYPES - P1
Audi – The dominant prototype force of sports car racing since the American Le Mans Series started its tenure at Sebring, Audi has shifted its priorities as a manufacturer to the global stage – 2012 marks the fourth straight year Audi won't embark on a full-season ALMS program. The previous four years at Sebring haven't brought near the success as Audi's eight-year win streak from 2000 to 2007, but then again, what could?
In the last four years, Audi has been defeated twice (2008, Penske Porsche RS Spyder and 2011, ORECA Peugeot 908 HDi FAP) and skipped the 2010 race as its updated version of its 2009 Sebring-winning R15 TDI wasn't ready. Last year, Audi brought its older open-top R15 Plus Plus, as it was dubbed, out for a final run before shifting to the R18 coupe later in the year – and it will again bring a year-old car to Sebring in 2012.
The R18 brought to Sebring en masse is the not the team's updated hybrid version, which will debut in the European season. The three 2011-spec R18 TDIs that are in Sebring are certainly the favorites, even despite the 15kg weight penalty per the one-off exemption from the ACO. Still, with this being Sebring and considering two of the three were written off at last year's Le Mans, nothing's out of the question.
Rebellion – The Bart Hayden-led squad enters 2012 with several changes. Rebellion's cars will change to updated Lola B12/60 coupes once the European season hits, but at Sebring, the team will run its pair of 2011 chassis, still with Toyota engines. As these cars don't have the newly mandated shark fin for prototypes per 2012 regulations, this is another team running with the one-off ACO exemption and the corresponding 15kg weight penalty.
The liveries, however, are new – Rebellion's Lolas move from the red-and-gold of 2010 and 2011 (RIGHT) to the seemingly ubiquitous black-and-gold livery that is sprouting up throughout the world of motorsport this year. On the driving front, Nicolas Prost, Neel Jani and Andrea Belicchi return for full-season efforts, with Belicchi now joined by Harold Primat after the Swiss switches from Aston Martin Racing. The team's third drivers are Porsche Supercup ace and ALMS GTC class champion Jeroen Bleekemolen, as he was for Rebellion last year, and Nick Heidfeld – the ex-Formula 1 veteran who makes his initial voyage into sports car racing.
OAK Racing (P1 and P2) – OAK has two WEC entries for the season after three one year ago, and is the only team to split them between LMP1 and LMP2. The team's P2 entry has been badged a Morgan, although it will still be the Pescarolo-based chassis the team has campaigned for several years.
Last year, the team briefly led overall with its all-gentlemen driver P1 car during an early pit stop cycle, but a repeat situation is unlikely. Nevertheless, a stout driver lineup sees Bertrand Baguette alongside Guillaume Moreau and Dominik Kraihamer in the all-pro P1 entry, and Olivier Pla and Matthieu Lahaye joining team principal Jacques Nicolet in P2. Either car has the potential of achieving a respectable result.
Pescarolo Team – Henri Pescarolo soldiers on to fly the French flag with Peugeot out, and enters the WEC for 2012. Like Audi, Pescarolo isn't running his main 2012 challenger at Sebring – a one-race exemption has been granted for Pescarolo to run the grandfathered Pescarolo 01-Judd. The team will premiere its Pescarolo 03-Judd, based off the AMR-One tub, later in the year. The all-French driving lineup includes Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Julien Jousse.
Strakka, JRM HPDs – Probably the best of the petrol cars on paper, Strakka moves up to LMP1 and JRM enters the WEC from the FIA GT1 World Championship, where it ran a Nissan GT-R. The HPD ARX-03a seems the best challenger to the Audi juggernaut, as was demonstrated with the staggering pace set by the sister Muscle Milk HPD during the ALMS winter test in February.
This updated version of the HPD ARX-01e ran to second at Sebring last year after being assembled barely a week in advance of the race, and both cars have solid driver lineups. Strakka's trio of Jonny Kane, Danny Watts and team principal Nick Leventis enters its third year together, with a P2 Le Mans 24 Hours win to its credit. Meanwhile, JRM's lead driver David Brabham should work well with sports car veteran Peter Dumbreck and part-time F1 racer Karun Chandhok. Assuming at least one Audi could hit problems, the HPD seems the logical car to move into podium contention.